Rapid Survey of Student Thinking

Oct 2, 2023

The Rapid Survey of Student Thinking (RSST) is a tool teachers can use to make sense of and trace student ideas throughout a unit. Students have many ideas, experiences, and modes of expression (gesture, metaphor, inventive language) that are part and parcel of their sensemaking. This tool helps us attune to these diverse resources and consider how they might inform instruction going forward.

Consider using the RSST tool with one of these video

Teaching Considerations

Here, we describe some ways you might use the RSST in practice. We also provide a practice opportunity if you’d like to try it with a kindergarten student’s model and discussion of his thinking.

Step 1: Begin to familiarize yourself with the five lenses depicted in the RSST. While familiarity will grow as you try them on, you can also read or look at examples to build awareness of what you might see in the science classroom.

  • Ideas: What ideas did students share about the phenomenon or question? What do they seem to understand already?
  • Expansive ways of knowing and doing: What novel ideas or practices did students introduce to support their sensemaking? (Through words, pictures, gestures, humor, storytelling, community histories, etc.) 
  • Think beyond the “canonical” explanation here – see a chapter entitled Toward More Equitable Learning in Science for more.
  • Everyday language: What terms did you hear students use to support their sensemaking?
  • Experiences: What experiences did students describe that connected to and/or helped them reason about the phenomenon?
  • Connecting ideas: What ideas did you hear that reflected synthesis, community-building, or valuing others’ unique contributions?

Step 2: Collect artifacts of student thinking. To use the RSST in your classroom, you will want to collect and work with student artifacts. These may be examples of student work, notes or videos of discussion. 

Step 3: Use the RSST to parse and take notes on student thinking. We recommend doing this as soon as possible when the instructional context and interactions are fresh in your mind. We also recommend taking notes on what you notice, citing examples to preserve what you specifically saw in student thinking. Here are two approaches you might take:

  • Taking each lens in turn. You could look through the entire set of artifacts with a given lens in mind, like “ideas” or “everyday language.” For instance, the picture below shows the language a preservice teacher noted high school students using when watching and explaining a video of a controlled burn on a field of dry grass. 

Everyday language high school students used when watching and explaining a video of a controlled burn on a field of dry grass. Examples include "set ablaze", "dead grass" and "ashes".

Considering lenses individually could help you more quickly see patterns and variations across artifacts through that lens. It also allows you to start with lenses that are more familiar and build sequentially to lenses that are more challenging.

  • Fully considering each artifact across lenses. Alternatively, you could look at a given artifact with all lenses. This could help you see artifacts’ richness more holistically, and it can be helpful to juxtapose, compare, and contrast the lenses to make sense of what you’re seeing.

Step 4: Consider next steps based on your analysis. The RSST provides some questions for synthesizing across noticings, next you will want to think about what to do instructionally, such as modifying lessons or returning to the students to ask more questions. You may also want to do personal reflection and build awareness while reflecting on your own positionality.

Step 5: Over time, decide if you want to revise any lenses. As you gain familiarity with the RSST, consider how specific lenses serve you and your class as you grow together. For instance, maybe your students are consistently connecting ideas, so it is not as useful to focus on anymore — you could take on a more explicit race, power, and justice lens. Or you may decide to work with that lens from the start! We hope you use the tool in ways that support your practice and classroom community as long as attention to equity and divergent perspectives are maintained.

If you want to try on the RSST, feel free to check out a practice opportunity below!


Practice Opportunity

View a kindergarten student’s initial model of where a puddle came from and went, and listen to him explain his thinking.

A kindergarten student's model of where puddles come from and go. The model shows the sun and a puddle with upward arrows pointed toward the sun in both panels of the model.

A student’s initial puddle model. Video (~1:30)



Analyzing students’ experiences, ways of knowing and doing, language, and other funds of knowledge (Moll et al., 1992) is critical for honoring and building on students’ cultural expertise and whole selves throughout units of instruction. As we highlight in some related PL tools and videos (see Funds of Knowledge PL), it is important to center such resources to do more than “hook” students into lessons — students’ divergent resources should reshape instructional storylines as they unfold over time.

Using the RSST can broaden our lens to consider student thinking and support self-reflection. For instance, after using the RSST, we could pause and ask — which ideas are easiest for me to notice and respond to, and why? Where do I need to cultivate my ways of noticing? Noticing more expansively (Patterson Williams et al., 2020; Winn, 2021) is a central part of justice-oriented teaching. We share a more extensive framework below as something that the RSST can help us build toward.

A critical and cultural framework for examining funds of knowledge. Science Knowledge Matters: Students' ideas are scientific. What do students already understand about the phenomenon? Students' critiquing & questioning science based on their experiences is valid. Race, Power and Justice Matter: How are students showing/writing about race, power, and justice (including justice for animals and the environment)? How does/can/should justice connect to learning? How did students talk about their own agency, such as how they can/will take action in the world? How is power shared in the classroom? Language & Expression of Ideas Matters: What everyday language did students use? How were they representing key ideas without words? How are students engaging in story-telling, for example? Histories, Realities and Futures Matter: What lived experiences did students draw on? What did you learn about their possible interests and identities (now or in the future)? How are their ideas and identities connected to cultural sustainability?

Questions to consider when using the RSST:

  • How can we support expansive forms of thinking in contexts where students will be held accountable for “correct” answers?
  • How can we elevate and cultivate less prevalent ideas in the classroom?
  • In what ways can we develop our own ways of seeing divergent contributions in the classroom? Can we work with colleagues to do so?
  • How can we see more than individual contributions and value students’ roles in nurturing ideas interactionally?


Challenging assumptions K teacher: you see deeper into what they're really thinking and sometimes a student that you think that is really at a really low level can surprise you by the picture and by what they're trying to say in the picture. I have this one kid, he hated writing, writing time for him was the worst time ever. But when it came to science. Wow. It was like, I saw a different child just because of what he produced for those models. So again, with different perspective, it made me realize that he had more potential that I was giving him for. Because sometimes we create our own biases. (Interview 05/20/20). The student's model is also shown as well as a description of the model and what symbols in their model meant.

Teacher Educators & Professional Learning

Design Considerations


Teacher educators have used the RSST for different purposes and as part of learning opportunities in TE courses or PL. 

Purposes: The RSST has been used with pre- and in-service teachers to…

  • Help teachers learn to elicit and listen to student resources
  • Broaden the lenses we use in making sense of student contributions
  • Inform planning decisions
  • Learn more about students, their communities, and connections they make to science
  • Develop common language in teacher teams

You may want to use the RSST as part of the following kinds of teacher learning opportunities:

  • Video analysis: The RSST could be used to make sense of student thinking and interactions in a classroom video. In a methods course, for example, teacher candidates could be split into small groups who each try on one lens when watching, then engage in a jigsaw or whole-group discussion to think across lenses.
  • Student thinking interviews: Several methods courses ask teacher candidates to interview a student or small group of students about a phenomenon and how/why it happens. The RSST can be helpful for anticipating what students might offer and analyzing what students do contribute.
  • Reflecting on instruction and/or student work: The RSST can also function as a tool for reflection. For instance, if you fill out the RSST after a lesson and one or more lenses are blank, what might that mean? Are there implications for lesson design, classroom power dynamics, etc.?
  • Planning for instruction: Lesson design can also benefit from the RSST up front, as it can prompt questions you might ask students. 

In our experience, the “Expansive ways of knowing and doing” lens requires the most practice and support. We must continue learning about varied, rich sensemaking repertoires not often reflected in the Western, white, middle-class practices privileged in school science. With teachers, exploring the worked vignettes in the “Toward Equitable Learning in Science” chapter is one way to get started. 




Videos to practice with the RSST tool in PL or TE

These are videos we have used to couple with the RSST tool in PL and TE methods courses. 

Here is an asynchronous professional development that includes the RSST tool. Critical Approaches to Discourse is designed for teachers to use in partnership with others to consider critical equity approaches to analyzing and reflecting on classroom discourse. This module pairs with this video in which a 2nd-grade teacher uses the KLEWS chart around the key concept “landforms are made of rock.” During this lesson, a student asks, “Are all landforms made of rock?” A conversation unfolds between the teacher and the students. As you watch the video (from 6:38-9:50), please think of the following questions.

Here is an example of teachers debriefing student work during a job-embedded professional learning activity during a studio day Debriefing (PL video).




Preservice Teacher Learning about Students’ Initial Thinking and Their Own Questioning. The RSST was a generative tool for a preservice teacher’s parsing of student thinking for an interview-based assignment in a secondary science methods course. The preservice teacher interviewed high school students about a video of a controlled burn on a field of dry grass, inviting students’ noticings and initial explanations of what was happening to the grass microscopically as it burned. Using the RSST attuned the preservice teacher to diverse resources like lived experiences (such as a parent’s work at a nearby fire department) and students’ varied uses of similes and related scenarios to reason. The preservice teacher also reflected on the implications for their instructional planning and what they learned about themselves as a questioner. This included acknowledging the effectiveness of asking students to say more about “jumps” they seemed to make in their reasoning. (Dr. Heather Johnson, Vanderbilt)

Identifying Student Resources in Secondary Methods Courses. Two teacher educators use the RSST in their secondary preservice methods courses to help teacher candidates learn the importance of making student ideas visible as they engage in sensemaking about real-world phenomena. It is often surprising to preservice teachers how difficult it can be to uncover students’ ideas and avoid leading students to “correct” science explanations. To practice this skill, preservice teachers conduct clinical interviews by posing a question about a phenomenon with the goal of bringing student ideas to the surface. For example, one preservice teacher asked their students, “What do you think is responsible for cancer?” During the ten-minute interview, he used AST teacher talk moves (e.g., probing and pressing questions) to facilitate a discussion of students’ ideas. In describing how cancer spread, one student responded that the cell became “pregnant” and “pushed out” the babies. Using the RSST, the preservice teacher noted the student was thinking more expansively about what they knew about human reproduction and trying to map that onto how cells might reproduce. It turned out that this idea was a fairly common idea with his students that he had not anticipated. By using talk moves and making space for students to work through their reasoning, the preservice teacher was able to identify many different ways students tapped into their sensemaking repertoires. The preservice teacher was then able to use this expansive way of knowing as a valuable resource to incorporate into his planning for his unit on cell division. (Drs. Heather Johnson & Kirsten Mawyer, Vanderbilt and University of Hawai’i)

Job-embedded Professional Learning & Students’ Hypotheses. As a part of orienting to NGSS and a new curriculum with a local school district, 30 teacher leaders ran a summer program at a community center. After eliciting students’ ideas about how a maglev train worked and students’ experiences with trains in Seattle, we recorded a list of hypotheses students suggested for how and why the maglev train worked. Interestingly, many students considered how air pressure might be involved. Since the curriculum did not address ideas related to air pressure, we added lessons with hair dryers to help students reason with this hypothesis. Teachers walked away understanding that examining ideas not as right or wrong, but rather as multiple hypotheses, helped deepen students’ ideas of forces and motion. (Dr. Jessica Thompson, University of Washington)

The left paper shows back pocket Qs such as "Could you tell me what this symbol means?" and "How do you know that happened?". the paper on the right shows student hypotheses, and a chart of the hypothesis, the number of students, and the observations/student rationale.

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This site is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) through Award #1907471 and #1315995